I first visited Richland in 2015. At the time, I was filming my 2018 film Yours in Sisterhood in communities all over the US, documenting encounters between strangers and 1970s letters to the editor of Ms. Magazine. I had found a letter sent to Ms. written by a woman from Richland who told the story of losing her Hanford worker father to radiation-related illness, and, in Richland, I filmed a reading of this letter with Trisha Pritikin, a Richland-born anti-nuclear activist and downwinder whose own story of exposure and loss was almost identical to the one in the letter. Trisha drove me around Richland’s “Alphabet House” historic district of identical model suburban homes built for Hanford workers, pointing to the “F” house where she had grown up. And she led me to Richland High School, showing me the wall-sized mushroom cloud exploding out of a capital letter R that is on the school’s back facade.
In the months and years that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about Richland. As the 2016 US election unfolded and white supremacy, American nationalism, and right wing ideologies took new and troubling public forms, I wondered about what it meant for a community to so proudly display a nuclear weapon as a heritage symbol, and I felt drawn to try to understand what a community like Richland might have to teach us about the ways Americans have processed their own violent histories.
I am a first generation American whose parents fled Ceaucescu’s Romania as political asylum-seekers. Through the process of making my first feature film, an intimate five-year project excavating my own family’s hidden history, I learned how to facilitate people’s confrontations with painful histories with care and empathy. Since then, I’ve come to understand my work as a filmmaker as a form of delicate mediation between people and their pasts.
While a number of journalists, writers, and anti-nuclear activists have taken on the Hanford story, it is often told through an investigative lens where the aim is to expose and criticize the nuclear weapons industry. As I embarked on a multi-year process of patient relationship-building and community listening in Richland, I didn’t want to shy away from the tremendous environmental and human costs of nuclear arms manufacturing, but, at the same time, I also wanted to represent the stories of Hanford workers— people whose politics often diverge drastically from my own—with dignity and generous listening.
RICHLAND does not provide easy answers, a policy position, a simple critique of the nuclear industry, or interviews with nuclear experts. Instead, it does the messier work of creating a patiently unfolding space where divergent voices and positions can co-exist, investing in a cinematic form that gently holds multiple entangled histories in one place. We are living at a moment in history that is deeply structured by human denial, and it is in the shadow of this moment that this project about feelings and belief systems feels urgent. Rather than creating an onscreen world of pro-nuclear vs. anti-nuclear binaries and easily digested soundbites, my intention with RICHLAND is to inhabit a more uncomfortable, intimate, and ambivalent space that ultimately points to the ways that each of us holds denial close.